In what swirled through the college football rumor-verse as, ultimately, one of the worst kept secrets, reports came down from multiple sources shortly after the clock struck midnight on New Year's Eve that West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen would be accepting the head coaching position for the University of Houston football program, replacing Major Applewhite, who was fired over this past weekend.
According to ESPN.com, Holgorsen will receive a five-year, $20 million contract to coach the Cougars, making him the highest paid head coach at a Group of Five school. The timing on announcing the hire of Holgorsen reportedly has a financial element to it, as the buyout to extricate him from his deal at West Virginia dropped from $2.5 million to $1 million after December 31.
Upon final agreement between both sides, Holgorsen returns to the school where he was offensive coordinator in 2008 and 2009 under Kevin Sumlin, and he becomes the fifth head coach of the Houston football program this decade, an astounding number for a school that's averaged nine wins per season since 2011, and has actually fired two of those five head coaches.
A few thoughts on this turn of events:
4. UH is lucky to have the deep pockets and the insatiable drive of Tilman Fertitta.
If you're looking for one of the strangest college football articles that you'll read all year, check out Yahoo! Sports' Pete Thamel's going off on the University of Houston brass for their handling of this coaching transition. He basically calls president Renu Khator, board of regents president Tilman Fertitta, and athletics director Chris Pezman a clown show because... well, because they're firing good people who are average at their jobs in a quest for excellence, as best I can tell.
Look, it's not optimal firing a college football coach who's been to two bowls his first two seasons as a head coach, as in most eras, that'd be enough for at least a third season to see if he can improve. However, this is the real world. Good people get fired when (a) they're just okay at high profile jobs requiring excellence, and (b) a better solution is available (in a business where their availability is rare). Tilman Fertitta wants Houston athletics to be as great as the college landscape will allow them to be. Who can blame him for that?
3. Dana Holgorsen is an upgrade over Major Applewhite, at least at the box office.
An athletics department is, ultimately, a business, and let's face it — Major Applewhite does not have a "buzz rating" that can withstand 7-5 and 8-5 seasons, including a 70-14 loss to Army in a bowl game. The roughly $3 million Fertitta will invest to buy out both Applewhite's UH deal and Holgorsen's West Virginia deal is a small drop in the bucket compared to season ticket sales, program buzz, and eradicating the poor optics of empty seats at TDECU Stadium.
Now, to be clear, Holgorsen needs to win, too, in order to keep people interested. The Coogs' fan base is not an "unconditional love" group. However, this hire solves the short-term problem of OC Kendal Briles' departure to Florida State, as Holgorsen will play an up-tempo, very watchable brand of offense. Long term, we will see where it goes.
2. Why would a coach leave the Big XII for the American Athletic Conference?
Holgorsen actually isn't the first one to leave the Big XII for a non-Power Five deal, as Tommy Tuberville did the same thing a few years ago, when he left Texas Tech for Cincinnati. I think it's fair to wonder exactly where Holgorsen stood with the West Virginia brass, as a promising 2018 season in which they rose into the Top 10 in November, ultimately ended 8-4 with a loss in the Camping World Bowl.
Honestly, the high point of Holgorsen's time at West Virginia might have been his very first season, in which he went 10-3 with a 70-33 win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl. (Yes, Holgorsen put 70 on a Dabo Swinney-coached team!) Since then, upon West Virginia's joining the Big XII in 2012, Holgorsen's overall records went like this — 51-38 overall, 33-30 in conference, 1-5 in bowl games. His career winning percentage as a head coach is 60 percent, identical to.... MAJOR APPLEWHITE. So maybe Holgorsen is jumping out at the right time, and let's face it, $4 million for a fresh start isn't so bad, even in a lesser conference.
Beyond that, from a personal standpoint, Holgorsen spends a ton of time in Houston both socially and recruiting, so it's safe to say, this will be a "quality of life" upgrade over Morgantown. Also, it's probably not the worst thing in the world for a guy who loves casinos to be working for the owner of the Golden Nugget franchise.
1. In the end, Houston needs to remember when they've had their greatest success.
Of the four previous Houston head coaches, two left for greener pastures of their own volition (Kevin Sumlin, Tom Herman) and two were fired for essentially being bland and average (Tony Levine, Applewhite). In hiring the two bland and average head coaches that were ultimately fired after three and two seasons, respectively, the school seemed to hang its hat on how much said head coach was pledging loyalty to the school, as if Sumlin and Herman leaving left the school as some sort of jilted lover.
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In hiring Levine and Applewhite, the school prioritized some sort of Omertà vow to the University of Houston over finding the best head football coach. The fact of the matter is that there are maybe a dozen schools who can sleep every night knowing their head coach will never leave for a better job. Houston is not one of those schools, so the goal should be to find the Sumlins and Hermans of the world, guys who, if they win games at UH, will get offered jobs like Texas A&M and Texas because they're good coaches. It's no coincidence that the only double digit win seasons for the Houston program since 1990 all occurred on the watch of guys who left shortly after achieving that (Art Briles, Sumlin, Herman).
If you have coaches leaving for better jobs every three seasons, your program is probably kicking ass. That said, I have no idea which bucket Holgorsen falls into — is he a guy content to coach for a decade in Houston, make a few million bucks a year, and go to a bunch of December bowls? Or does he want another swing at the Power Five?
I would argue that Houston will have a better football program the next three or four years if he is actually the latter.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.